Ten tips for successful conference networking

meetingBy Mary McCauley

By this time last year I had already booked my flight to my first ever SfEP conference. I had been invited to present a seminar and I was absolutely petrified. I lay awake at night worrying; not only was I going to a conference in another country, I was also going to have to get up and speak in front of a room full of strangers. I knew just one other person attending … and I had only met her once before. What on earth had I let myself in for?

I needn’t have worried. I went to the 2014 conference, met lots of lovely people, made some fantastic new friends, learned an incredible amount (and not all of it during the workshops and seminars) and I thoroughly enjoyed and gained from the entire experience.

Networking, according to our friends in the Oxford English Dictionary, is to ‘interact with others to exchange information and develop professional or social contacts’. That’s the formal way of looking at it: I think of it as getting away from my desk, hanging out with my tribe, meeting and learning from interesting colleagues, making new likeminded friends and having fun. So whether you’re a conference regular or a nervous newbie (as I was), here are my ten tips for making the conference networking experience a more fruitful and enjoyable one.

Network online before you go

Joining pre-conference online discussions will make it easier to join real-life conversations come September! You can find out who’s going to the SfEP conference and get lots of advice and tips on all things conference related by joining the pre-conference chats on the SfEP forums. If you have a Facebook account make sure to join any relevant groups in which members are discussing the conference. If you’re on Twitter, you can follow the #sisfep15 tweets – better still, if you use the likes of Hootsuite or TweetDeck, you can set up a dedicated #sisfep15 stream.

If you’re normally a social media lurker rather than an active participant, then perhaps make a special effort to comment more in discussions. If you don’t already have a social media account, then I recommend you join Facebook as a starting point. It seems to be the social media hangout of choice for many editors internationally, and it’s a fantastic tool for meeting editorial colleagues and learning from others.

Use a recent photo of yourself in your social media profile

Many people have genuine concerns about identity theft and privacy when it comes to using an actual photo of themselves rather than a substitute/default image in online profiles. However, it makes it easier to approach colleagues at the conference if you recognise each other’s photos from social media. Try and use a photo that was taken in the past five years – one that reflects the way you look now. It’s easier to make conversation with a new colleague if they’re not completely distracted by the differences between the social media you and the real you!

Make a wish list

Before you head off to the conference (or, following onsite registration, when you get a list of the attendees) make a note of all the people you’d like to meet in person during the conference. This can include both speakers and attendees. Perhaps you’d like to meet an industry expert, training supplier or publisher’s representative; or it may be a colleague whose blog posts or social media comments you admire; or a member of the SfEP council or admin staff (don’t forget to put faces to the names of all the hard-working SfEP office team!). If there’s a helpful colleague whom you haven’t met in person, but who has referred clients to you or helped you in any way, it would be nice to meet them in person to thank them.

Feel the fear and … smile!

So you’ve come out of social media lurking mode and taken part in online discussions; you’ve bitten the bullet and posted a lovely recent photo of yourself on Facebook; and you’re walking in the door for registration on day one of the conference … but all you want to do is find a nice dark corner in which to hide. Just remember that even the most confident person in the room is probably feeling a bit apprehensive – it’s normal, but don’t let it hold you back from having a productive and enjoyable conference. Often what we project is reflected back to us, so a smile goes a long way. The knots in your stomach may not be conducive to smiling, but the more you do it the more you’ll relax, and the more approachable you’ll be.

Arrange to meet up

Adjusting to your surroundings in the first few hours of the conference, particularly if it’s your first, can make networking difficult. If possible, pre-arrange to meet up with a friend, or an online or local group colleague, before registration. Attending registration and the AGM with someone you know will ease you into networking mode – it’s easier to approach other people when you’re with someone. This is especially true if you wish to approach one of the more well-known presenters, guest speakers or panellists!

Be interested

How does one actually network? Well, for a start, try not to think of it as ‘networking’: approach it as mere friendly chatting with likeminded people with whom you share a love of words. Don’t be afraid to use small talk to get you started – where would we be without that wonderful fail-safe topic of conversation that is the weather? You could also comment on your surroundings, ask colleagues about their journey to the conference, where they travelled from, which sessions they’re most looking forward to, which type of editorial work they do, etc. – be interested in them and listen to what they have to say. You’ll find that most people will turn the tables and ask the same questions of you (‘And what about yourself?’), so think through in advance what you’d like to say about the type of work you do.

Help others

I attended non-editorial business conferences in my previous career and I’m amazed at the cultural differences between those and editorial conferences. Editorial folk are a naturally friendly and helpful bunch, happy to reach out to others. That wasn’t always my experience at business conferences! When you meet new people at the conference, be open to helping them – share your knowledge or experience, offer advice if you think it’ll be welcomed, or refer them to other resources or people you think may help them. People will do the same for you, and it’s in this sharing of experiences and knowledge that understanding is formed and connections are made.

Having been the billy-no-mates person at business conferences on a couple of occasions, I know what a dreadful feeling it is. So if you see someone walk in to the conference canteen alone with no obvious group to sit with, or standing alone during the coffee break, why not smile and invite them to join your group. Likewise, if you’re the one alone, don’t be afraid to approach a friendly looking group and simply say, ‘I’m by myself – do you mind if I join you?’

Don’t skip meals and coffee breaks

There may be times when you’ll feel like running back to your room for a quiet lie-down or to catch up on your emails, instead of facing the canteen or coffee stand. Try to fight that feeling and battle through! It’s not a long conference, and you can catch up when you get home (though I do recognise that for some of the more introverted, those quiet times alone are what get them through the entire conference).

In my experience, a lot of the nuts and bolts of networking happens during the meal and coffee breaks, drinks receptions, etc. It’s often during these that new friendships are formed, some of the most valuable discussions take place and ideas are shared – so mingle, mingle, mingle!

Carry business cards with you

While some people feel business cards are becoming obsolete, I believe they’re still a valuable networking tool. When you meet someone at the conference whom you find interesting and friendly, someone you’d like to connect with professionally or socially, then ask for their business card and offer yours in return. Try not to stick the card in your pocket or folder immediately; take a moment to look at the details on it and ask any questions you might have about the person’s work, etc. It may feel really awkward at first, but the more you offer your business card and ask for one, the easier it gets.

Follow up when you get home

There will probably be colleagues and speakers whom you would like to stay in contact with after the conference. When you get home dig out their business cards, or find their details on the lists in your conference pack, wait a day or two and then connect with them online through social media. LinkedIn is a good medium for the more professional-level connections, Facebook for the more friendly and sociable connections, while Twitter is a good catch-all tool. If the person in question doesn’t have a social media account, you could send a ‘lovely-to-meet-you-and-let’s-stay-in-touch’ email instead.

When sending a LinkedIn connection request, personalise the message and refer to your interaction at the conference. If you think you can be of help to the person, mention this in your message. During the conference, perhaps you’ll promise a colleague you’ll share something with them – a contract template, for example, or a link to a helpful blog post. If you do, ensure you follow up after the conference and send the promised item. Likewise, if someone promises you something similar but forgets to send it, don’t be afraid to connect online and follow up.

I found my editorial tribe online; meeting so many of them in person at the conference last year felt like returning home. The conference is a wonderful experience, and while networking online is great, networking in person is even better. Best of luck to all my colleagues heading to editorial conferences in the coming months. Unfortunately, I can’t attend this year but I’ll be with you in spirit (and via the conference Twitter hashtags)!

MaryBased in Wexford, Ireland, Mary McCauley is a freelance proofreader and copy-editor working with publishers, corporate clients and independent fiction authors. She is a professional member of the SfEP and a member of the Association of Freelance Editors, Proofreaders and Indexers (AFEPI) in Ireland. She helps run the AFEPI Twitter account and also blogs sporadically at Letters from an Irish Editor. Connect with Mary on Twitter, Facebook, or Google+.

The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the SfEP.

3 thoughts on “Ten tips for successful conference networking

  1. John Espirian

    Well said, Mary. SfEP conferences are the friendliest ones I’ve ever been to, and I highly recommend them (the fact that I’m co-presenting at the next one has nothing to do with it – honest!).

    To the newbies, do make sure to come along to the Meet the Council session. It’s a great way for first-timers to really get into the swing of things.

    See you all in York.

    Reply
    1. Mary McCauley

      Thanks John! I’m sure your session will be excellent as usual, and I hope you’ll be helping some poor greenhorn presenter again this year by chairing their session (you really helped me last year).

      I have wonderful memories of the 2014 conference and I’ll definitely be back another year. If any first-timers are still trying to decide whether or not to go, I strongly recommend that you do. Have fun!

      Reply
  2. Steve Hammatt

    Nice article. The tip about having a photo is a good one, I’d suggest having a photo (avatar) on your SfEP forum account. At last year’s conference I had more than one person come up to me because they recognised me from the forum. If you’ve already got a face to match to the name, I think it makes you more approachable (and easier to approach those you recognise too).

    Reply

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